When Tucker Carlson took over Bill O’Reilly’s timeslot in 2017 after one sexual harassment scandal too many finally forced Fox to cut one of their biggest stars loose, there was no guarantee that he’d be a great success. He’d been set adrift by CNN a few years earlier and hadn’t really done much to separate himself from the countless other dough-faced automatons jostling for position in an increasingly chaotic conservative media ecosystem. But since his elevation to prime time golden boy, he’s shown a distinct knack for pulling a series of comically incredulous faces, as well as identifying many real economic problems plaguing America and then finding inventive ways to shift the blame for them onto immigrants, people of color or trans activists instead of the very people paying his salary.
Increasing numbers of activists and media watchdogs have been ringing the alarm bells regarding Carlson’s increasingly open demagoguery, which has often veered directly into “clash of civilizations” talking points that wouldn’t be out of place on neo nazi message boards. A few months ago this led to a protest outside Tucker’s house, which played about as well as you can expect with the mainstream media civility police who denounced the activists and stood up for Tucker’s free speech rights (which apparently include the right to be guaranteed a massive corporate media platform).
This week, the controversy once again swirling around Carlson is not based on anything that he said on television recently, but rather from years ago when the largest media platform he had available to him was his lowly weekly call-in spot on shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge’s radio show. The comments, compiled and released by Media Matters for America, have ranged from defending child marriages, to stunningly racist musings on Iraqi citizens who wouldn’t simply shut up and do what the US tells them to, to airing his extremely creepy sexual fantasies about teen beauty queens. They are disgusting and indefensible.
So, naturally, Tucker’s conservative media buddies have circled the wagons and are determined to defend him at all costs. We’ve heard all the usual refrains about left wing mobs trying to silence Carlson’s first amendment rights, and even prominent liberals like Chris Hayes are wringing their hands over “the phenomenon of finding statements from someone’s past to get them fired.” It’s been an extremely predictable reaction from just about everyone, but this tweet from David French is especially egregious:
Setting aside French's blatant hypocrisy here (conservatives aren't really in a position to be decrying “phony outrage”), both he and Hayes fundamentally get something about this current conversation wrong. People aren't all of a sudden up-in-arms over Carlson now that these statements have been uncovered. We all know Tucker is a bad guy. We hear him talk every night on television! So it's not like it comes off as a surprise that he holds misogynist or white supremacist leanings. These recordings are more of a sad glimpse into a desperate attempt by a cable tv also-ran to cash in on his mild fame by trying to impress some tedious shock jocks and their divorced dad audience. But they do offer a rare entryway into Tucker's (and some might say the conservative movement's) unrestrained id, not hidden or disguised with dog whistles or other rhetorical tricks.
It's not just Tucker, after all. Pretty much anyone who currently makes up what you could call the “conservative intelligentsia” has a history of bigoted comments. It's basically a rite of passage with these folks! Ben Shapiro, famously dubbed “the cool kid's philosopher” by none other than the New York Times, has been a major Carlson defender and has his own long history of open islamophobic and racist bigotry that doesn't seem to have done much to slow down his steady advancement as a mainstream conservative media star.
So, once again, all Tucker’s recently unearthed comments really do is unequivocally prove what folks on the left have been pointing out for years now — that he, along with the rest of the reactionary media establishment that have been bending over backwards to shield him from criticism, are utterly bereft of anything resembling moral decency. This is precisely why they’re popular! This is not a bug in the conservative media programming, but a feature. And it really puts their own constant bad faith phony outrage campaigns into stark relief.
We’re supposed to take these folks seriously when they spend multiple news cycles accusing one of the first Muslim-American women elected to congress of anti-Semitism when she dares to criticize the influence the Israeli lobby has on members of the US government? No matter what Meghan McCain or Bari Weiss try to tell you, the violent threat of anti-Semitism is coming from the far right, and pundits like Tucker Carlson played a direct role in creating a toxic media climate that helped radicalize Tree of Life synagogue shooter Robert Bowers, who was obsessed with a far right conspiracy theory that George Soros and Jewish community leaders were involved in a nefarious plot to flood America with immigrants and refugees. Where have we heard that before?
Fantasizing about this far-right “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory has been practically a nightly fixture of Carlson’s program since its inception, it’s a foundational part of right wing media from the Rupert Murdoch empire all the way down to the Chans. And in addition to the anti-semitic massacre in Pittsburgh, it’s inspiring horrific, Islamaphobic mosque shootings from Quebec City to Christchurch, New Zealand. The Tucker Carlson recordings are important in that they explicitly reveal the mindset motivating one of right wing media’s biggest personalities, but this is a symptom of a much larger problem that is wreaking havoc on modern society. And even if Carlson’s tedious victimization routine fails and he’s made to join Bill O’Reilly in early retirement, he’ll just be replaced with another cog in the monstrous conservative media machine. Unless, of course, enough everyday people start the difficult work of shutting that machine down.